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Source: Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, Vol. 36, No. 5 (Nov., 2005), pp.

404-411

Published by: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/30034943

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Research Commentary

In this article, I argue for a renewed focus in mathematics education research on proce-

dural knowledge. I make three main points: (1) The development of students' proce-

dural knowledge has not received a great deal of attention in recent research; (2) one

possible explanation for this deficiency is that current characterizations of concep-

tual and procedural knowledge reflect limiting assumptions about how procedures are

known; and (3) reconceptualizing procedural knowledge to remedy these assumptions

would have important implications for both research and practice.

knowledge

of mathematics continue to be a topic of animated conversation in the mathematics

education community. As a prominent mathematics educator (Sowder, 1998) noted

several years ago, "Whether developing skills with symbols leads to conceptual

understanding, or whether the presence of basic understanding should precede

symbolic representation and skill practice, is one of the basic disagreements"

between the opposing sides of the so-called math wars. Among those who argue

against current reform efforts, there is a perception that procedural knowledge acqui-

sition has been de-emphasized and deemed less important than conceptual knowl-

edge, with dire consequences for student learning (e.g., Budd et al., 2005;

Mathematically Correct, n.d.). Although some reformers might disagree with this

characterization, others are quite explicit in their belief that procedural knowledge

should play a secondary, supporting role to conceptual knowledge in students'

learning of mathematics (e.g., Pesek & Kirschner, 2000). Some go so far as to state

that an instructional focus on procedural knowledge, rather than conceptual knowl-

edge, leads to the development of isolated skills and rote knowledge, and that "a

rush for procedural skill will actually do more harm than good" (Brown, Seidelmann,

& Zimmermann, n.d.).

This issue has deep roots in our field (e.g., Brownell, 1945; Hiebert & Lefevre,

1986; Skemp, 1976); the current math wars indicate that we still have not reached

consensus on the respective roles of procedural knowledge and conceptual knowl-

Thanks to Heather Hill, Deborah Ball, Magdalene Lampert, Jack Smith, Colleen

Seifert, James Hiebert, and several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on

earlier versions of this article.

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Jon R. Star 405

edge in student l

this topic now t

procedural skill a

nature of the con

First, I claim tha

learning are prim

deal of attention

Although we wan

appropriately" (N

about what this

Second, I claim t

edge is that cur

conceptual know

gations of these c

edge-and making

cations for both

DEVELOPMENT OF PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE

opment of students' procedural knowledge has not been a recent focus of r

in mathematics education. A key word search of the Educational Res

Information Center (ERIC) database for procedural fluency, a term r

promoted by the National Research Council (2001) in Adding It Up, yield

articles. Perhaps given the newness of the term, this void may not be surp

ERIC also indicates, however, that the ratio of journal articles in mathem

education that use the terms conceptual knowledge or conceptual unders

to those that use the terms procedural knowledge or procedural skill is ap

mately 4:1. Similarly, an ERIC key word search of the past 10 years

Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (JRME) for procedure o

rithm yielded six articles, only four of which were even peripherally rel

students' knowledge of procedures. Perhaps most convincingly, of the a

mately 100 empirical articles related to the development of K-12 students

ematical content knowledge published over the past decade in the JRME,

11 did the researchers carefully investigate the development of students'

edge of procedures. Although this survey is far from exhaustive, it sugge

the ways that students come to know, use, and understand mathematical

dures have not been a prominent focus of mathematics education research

least 10 years.

Procedures were widely studied in the 1980s, when many studies focu

students' procedural errors (e.g., Brown & VanLehn, 1980; Matz, 1980). In

tion, a large amount of literature on procedural skill acquisition exists in c

psychology (e.g., Anderson, Fincham, & Douglass, 1997), and the relation

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406 Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

in developmental psychology (e.g., Rittle-Johnson, Siegle

for at least the past 10 years, mathematics education res

avoided detailed and careful studies of the development of

Why is that the case? It is perhaps no coincidence that

research on procedures has occurred in a time of political

educators. As alluded to above, the development of proce

in K-12 instruction have been particularly contentious is

which might explain some researchers' reluctance to pur

tion, and political reasons notwithstanding, some researc

procedural knowledge should not be a focus of research o

because of a perception that skills are no longer of sufficie

tance (compared with conceptual knowledge) to justify st

primarily designed to improve procedural knowledge. Oth

that the widespread availability of technological tools has

the need to study pedagogical and cognitive issues associa

of procedural skills. There is evidence, however, that ma

tors continue to believe that procedural skill plays a fun

in students' learning of mathematics (Ballheim, 1999; Nati

2001). Note that I am not claiming that procedural knowle

than conceptual knowledge. Rather, I claim that both are

students' mathematical proficiency and thus merit carefu

I propose a complementary explanation for the lack of m

research on the development of procedural knowledge-nam

acterizations of conceptual and procedural knowledge refle

unfounded assumptions about how concepts and procedur

CURRENT CHARACTERIZATIONS OF

CONCEPTUAL AND PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE

edge can be attributed to the seminal book edited by Hiebert (1986), pa

the introductory chapter by Hiebert and Lefevre (1986). They define c

knowledge as

knowledge that is rich in relationships. It can be thought of as a connected web o

edge, a network in which the linking relationships are as prominent as the discr

of information. Relationships pervade the individual facts and propositions so

pieces of information are linked to some network. (pp. 3-4)

One kind of procedural knowledge is a familiarity with the individual symbo

system and with the syntactic conventions for acceptable configurations of

The second kind of procedural knowledge consists of rules or procedures for

mathematical problems. Many of the procedures that students possess pro

chains of prescriptions for manipulating symbols. (pp. 7-8)

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Jon R. Star 407

A close look at t

as knowledge of

Rather, it is defi

ularly the richne

is a critical depar

tion of conceptu

connected knowle

slope) or concept

speaking, knowle

1989): The conne

or they may be

knowledge of do

(Gelman, Star, &

between a 6th g

point is that ma

(1986) definition

edge: that which

What about pro

term essentially

conventions, and

edge in implicit

tionships presen

procedure is conn

is superficial; it

is a significant d

are many differe

a procedure vari

that if one execu

error, one is gua

what Hiebert and

dural knowledge;

inate. But other

general and mor

Heuristic proce

(Schoenfeld, 197

wise choices can

educators who s

knowledge are re

1 Deep-level knowled

useful for the perfor

rote learning, inflex

associated with comp

Ferguson-Hessler, 1

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408 Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

compiled, or rote (Anderson, 1992). Heuristics, however, a

the Hiebert and Lefevre definition does not account for them.2

Hiebert and Lefevre's (1986) definitions of procedural and conceptual knowl-

edge were quite influential in providing mathematics educators with a well-defined

terminology to refer to students' knowledge of mathematics. However, the preceding

discussion illustrates that these terms suffer from a entanglement of knowledge type

and knowledge quality (De Jong & Ferguson-Hessler, 1996; Star, 2000) that makes

their use somewhat problematic, especially for procedural knowledge. The term

conceptual knowledge has come to encompass not only what is known (knowledge

of concepts) but also one way that concepts can be known (e.g., deeply and with

rich connections). Similarly, the term procedural knowledge indicates not only what

is known (knowledge of procedures) but also one way that procedures (algorithms)

can be known (e.g., superficially and without rich connections).

If knowledge type and knowledge quality have become conflated, then what

would it mean to disentangle them? Consider the 2 x 2 matrix shown in Table 1.

The matrix suggests that for both knowledge types (knowledge of concepts and

knowledge of procedures), one can have knowledge that is either superficial or deep.

The current usage of the terms conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge

makes it difficult to consider (or even name) the knowledge that belongs in the deep

procedural knowledge cell.3 Deep procedural knowledge would be knowledge of

procedures that is associated with comprehension, flexibility, and critical judgment

and that is distinct from (but possibly related to) knowledge of concepts. Separating

these independent characteristics of knowledge (type versus quality) allows for the

reconceptualization of procedural knowledge as potentially deep.

Table 1

Types and Qualities of Procedural and Conceptual Knowledge

Knowledge quality

Knowledge type.

Superficial Deep

Common

Procedural usage of 9

procedural knowledge

Conceptual 9 Common usage of

conceptual knowledge

edge do not account for heuristics. They write, "No sooner than we propose

and procedural knowledge and attempt to clarify them, we must back up and ac

nitions we have given and the impressions they convey will be flawed in s

not all knowledge fits nicely into one class or the other. Some knowledge lies at

strategies for solving problems, which themselves are objects of thought, ar

3 The cell for superficial conceptual knowledge was alluded to in the preced

tual knowledge. Knowledge of concepts certainly involves relationships, but

necessarily deep or rich. A learner's initial knowledge of a concept is typic

fragile, but over time the relationships can deepen and become richer.

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Jon R. Star 409

view of procedur

1990s (e.g., Davi

VanLehn propose

dure, meaning kn

writes of knowle

steps, the goals

which the procedu

ronment or situ

inherent in the e

dural knowledge

My own work o

concrete and rec

press). When stud

have available a ve

combining like te

sides. Yet despite

tion solvers have

maximally efficie

ibility to be an i

Flexibility is a n

relatively simple

3(x + 1) = 10; (b)

each of these equ

standard algorith

not be the standa

strategy is quite

or easiest to do, t

tions, or the one

among the probl

problem-solving

of procedural ac

likely has no reco

cient solutions or

ible solver-one

way through th

overpracticed, to

goals. I consider

Flexibility is not

conceptual and p

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410 Reconceptualizing Procedural Knowledge

PROCEDURAL KNOWLEDGE

implications for both research and practice. First and foremost, recogn

tence of deep procedural knowledge suggests the need for research

how it develops, and what its relationship is to other types of desired

knowledge. Broadening the definition of procedural knowledge could

dures back onto the research agenda of mathematics educators-inc

on both "sides" of the math wars. Second, accompanying these new

research is a need to broaden current ways of studying and assessin

knowledge. Methods for assessing students' procedural knowledge

impoverished at present, with procedural knowledge often measured si

a student can or cannot do. Research methods can instead focus on how students

can and cannot do and on the character of the knowledge they have (including its

depth), which supports their ability to perform procedures. And third, deep proce-

dural knowledge should be considered an instructional goal at all levels of schooling.

If so, additional research would be needed to develop and evaluate instructional

interventions and curricula that might achieve this goal, as well as to determine the

kinds of content knowledge for teaching that could support the development of deep

procedural knowledge.

REFERENCES

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165-180.

Anderson, J. R., Fincham, J. M., & Douglass, S. (1997). The role of examples and rules in the acquisi

tion of a cognitive skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition

23, 932-945.

Ballheim, C. (1999, October). Readers respond to what's basic. Mathematics Education Dialogues, 3, 1

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Cognitive Science, 4, 379-426.

Brown, S., Seidelmann, A., & Zimmermann, G. (n.d.). In the trenches: Three teachers' perspectiv

on moving beyond the math wars. Retrieved June 1, 2005, from the Mathematically Sane Web sit

http://mathematicallysane.com/analysis/trenches.asp

Brownell, W. A. (1945). When is arithmetic meaningful? Journal of Educational Research, 38, 48

498.

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math education and why you shouldn't believe them. Retrieved June 1, 2005, from the New Yor

City HOLD Web site: http://www.nychold.com/myths-050504.html

Davis, R. B. (1983). Complex mathematical cognition. In H. P. Ginsburg (Ed.), The development ofmath

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De Jong, T., & Ferguson-Hessler, M. (1996). Types and qualities of knowledge. Educationa

Psychologist, 31, 105-113.

Gelman, S. A., Star, J. R., & Flukes, J. (2002). Children's use of generics in inductive inferences. Jour

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Jon R. Star 411

Hiebert, J. (Ed.). (1

NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hiebert, J., & Lefevre, P. (1986). Conceptual and procedural knowledge in mathematics: An introduc-

tory analysis. In J. Hiebert (Ed.), Conceptual and procedural knowledge: The case of mathematics

(pp. 1-27). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Mathematically correct. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2005, from the Mathematically Correct Web site:

http://www.mathematicallycorrect.com/

Matz, M. (1980). Towards a computational theory of algebraic competence. Journal of Mathematical

Behavior, 3, 93-166.

Medin, D. L. (1989). Concepts and conceptual structure. American Psychologist, 44, 1469-1481.

National Research Council. (2001). Adding it up: Helping children learn mathematics. J. Kilpatrick, J.

Swafford, & B. Findell (Eds.). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Ohlsson, S., & Rees, E. (1991). The function of conceptual understanding in the learning of arithmetic

procedures. Cognition and Instruction, 8, 103-179.

Pesek, D. D., & Kirschner, D. (2000). Interference of instrumental instruction in subsequent relational

learning. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 31, 524-540.

Rittle-Johnson, B., Siegler, R. S., & Alibali, M. W. (2001). Developing conceptual understanding and

procedural skill in mathematics: An iterative process. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93,

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Sciences (pp. 80-86). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Nooney (Eds.), Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the North Amer

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Educational Psychology.

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Author

Jon R. Star, 513 Erickson Hall, College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing

48824; jonstar@msu.edu

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